For the past four months, members of the Merrick Senior Center's creative writing workshop have been preparing for an opportunity open to few writers, young or old, professional or amateur.
In addition to publishing their literary efforts in a limited circulation magazine titled "Musings of Maturity," the writers, all 60 or older and residents of the Town of Hempstead, will be reading their work in a performance at the Merrick Theater and Center for the Arts.
At a recent rehearsal, none of the writers needed coaxing to take the microphone. Some demonstrated theatrical abilities or offered unique perspectives, moving the annual show beyond a typical reading, says longtime instructor Paula Rodenas.
"We used to call it a reading and everybody didn't like that. Now we just call it a presentation," says Rodenas, a freelance writer and editor who has been coordinating the workshop and its annual show for more than 20 years. The opportunity to present original prose, poetry and mini-dramas in front of a live audience, has made the senior writing workshop so beloved by some that they can't wait to age in.
"I couldn't wait until I was old enough to join this class," says Loraine Stayer, 66, of Merrick, who signed up as soon as she was eligible six years ago. In her professional life, Stayer edits Slate & Style, the quarterly magazine of the National Federation of the Blind Writers' Division. With Rodenas, Stayer coedits the "Musings" magazine. Some 250 to 300 copies are printed by the Town of Hempstead and distributed to the writers and senior centers, town spokesman Michael Deery says.
Adding a new perspective
But perhaps Stayer's most significant contribution to the program was recruiting her husband, with his unique perspective, to the workshop's ranks three years ago. David Stayer, 72, a retired Nassau County social worker, often writes about blindness -- generally with a humorous perspective. And, like many who write from personal experience, he offers special insight on the subject matter because he has been blind since birth.
At a Wednesday afternoon run-through two weeks before the show, David read his short-short story, "The White Coat Perception," in a senior center backroom filled with folding chairs and fellow workshop members.
"I walked the corridors of the medical center for years. Although I used a long white cane, the white coat stood out," he reads aloud, his eyes closed as his fingertip traces across the Braille dots on a spreadsheet in his lap. The story, developed in the workshop, tells of a blind hospital social worker who is repeatedly mistaken for a doctor because he wears a white lab coat on his rounds. One day, he is frustrated by people erroneously calling him "Doc." In his story, the social worker quips: "You are right. I must admit that I was a doctor. I got my degree as an eye doctor, but, as you can see, I was not very good." The punch line draws a laugh from his fellow writers.
Although his wife, known as Lori in the workshop, has been writing since age 13, David has blossomed more recently, assisted by computer technology. He types on a standard keyboard, and a special program reads it back to him, while another program prints his text in Braille. But the real progress happens at the workshop, where, he says, "I've gotten a chance to learn how to be better at writing, and I've gotten a chance to educate, to a large extent, about blindness."
For anyone who has ever sat in front of a blank page waiting for the words to materialize, writing can be a lonely pursuit and leave the author pondering, "Am I any good?" One way to escape that solitude, and erase doubts, is to take a writers' workshop offered at libraries, schools and senior centers on Long Island. The Merrick Senior Center's workshop is free, co-sponsored by Poets and Writers Inc. and the Town of Hempstead Department of Senior Enrichment. It's limited to about 20 people, and currently has about 18 members ranging from their 60s to 92.
Opening up to others
Being part of a small writers' community has been an inspiration to Hazel Marie Watson, 68, of Roosevelt. A licensed registered nurse, she joined two years ago. Through first-person essays, including a recent one about the singer Whitney Houston's death, Watson says she feels comfortable sharing inner thoughts she might not otherwise reveal, and she credits the workshop with helping her to open up.
"In those . . . hours we spend together, we become a family," Watson says. "They know things about me that my family doesn't even know."
In weekly sessions, the members' original work is brought in, read and critiqued. Comments are restricted to constructive criticism, with emphasis on improving a piece rather than tearing it apart. Despite that gentle approach, new members are often daunted at reading their work aloud in front of others, but they soon get over it, Rodenas says. Though many are amateurs seeking their first byline, others have been published.
"These people are serious writers whether they ever get published or not," Rodenas says. "They are not just there to kill time."
Memoirs are a favorite form of writing here because "people do love to recall their lives," Rodenas says. She also challenges them with assignments intended to stretch the writing muscle. She may ask them to write about photos chosen from a grab bag, or to attempt traditional poetry forms such as limericks or haiku.
The short poems were both a challenge and an aid for Marion Anna Campagna of North Merrick, a workshop member who is in her early 80s. "I never knew what a limerick or a haiku was," she says. A former opera soprano who traveled Europe in the 1950s and retired from professional singing in 1969, Campagna joined the workshop 13 years ago because she wanted to perform onstage again. The classes, she says, keep her mind working.
"Some people sit down and start knitting in a rocking chair," she says, with humor. "None of the girls in our group do that."
Not that topics of aging don't provide creative fodder. Satirizing the foibles of aging is a specialty of Bernice Busch, a retired business manager from Oceanside, who is in her 70s. A writing workshop regular, Busch last year joined groups at the Amityville and Oceanside libraries, and plans to repeat the Amityville program this summer. Busch's humor is a way of dealing with the facts of life of aging.
"After a while in life you learn to deal with things with humor, it helps," says Busch. Even with doctor's appointments, she says, "There's often a funny side, if you look for it." At the rehearsal, she read her rhyming verse, an amusing poke at old age entitled "Doctors Visit."
"First go to the ophthalmologist/
then onto the gynecologist/
also the gastroenterologist/
if necessary, then the urologist/
he didn't mention a psychologist/
and thank God no oncologist/
not ready for a cardiologist/
Overall reviewing his list/
I'm now a cockeyed optimist."
Finished with the presentation, Busch went back to her seat, satisfied that colleagues, who share her love for writing, could also relate to her predicament with laughter.
See the presentation
The Merrick Senior Center's Creative Writing Workshop annual presentation is open to the public with no admission charge.
WHERE Merrick Theater and Center for the Arts, 2222 Hewlett Ave. (near the Merrick train station)
WHEN Wednesday, June 13, 1-3 p.m.
INFO Merrick Senior Center, 516-868-4777, Merrick Theater, 516-868-6400
A free copy of "Musings of Maturity" is available to Town of Hempstead residents. Call the town's Department of Communications at 516-812-3303.